Taps and the Gun Salute: The History

Current as of September 9, 2020


The U.S. military has many ways to show respect, such as a small arms salute or a hand salute. Two important military traditions are the playing of Taps to honor service members who have passed away and a gun salute. The following is a brief history of how these important traditions came to be.

History of Taps

Of all the military bugle calls, perhaps none is so easily recognized or more apt to render emotion than Taps. It’s part of our culture and is played at the completion of a military funeral ceremony or memorial service and sounded every evening as the final call for lights out on military installations.

It is even played and sung at summer camps and on a variety of other occasions. In 2013, Taps was designated by Congress as the national “Song of Remembrance,” under Public Law 112-239, Section 596.

Until the Civil War, the traditional call at day's end was a tune borrowed from the French, called "Lights Out."

But in July 1862, following the last of the bloody Seven Days Battles, hard on the loss of 600 men and wounded himself, Union Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield called the brigade bugler to his tent. He thought “Lights Out” was too formal, but wished to honor his men.

Oliver Wilcox Norton, the bugler, told the story: "...showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, (he) asked me to sound them on my bugle. I did this several times, playing the music as written.

“He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for Taps thereafter in place of the regulation call.

“The music was beautiful on that still summer night and was heard far beyond the limits of our brigade. The next day, I was visited by several buglers from neighboring brigades, asking for copies of the music, which I gladly furnished. The call was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac."

The more emotive and powerful Taps was soon adopted throughout the military. In 1874, it was officially recognized by the U.S. Army. It became standard at military funeral ceremonies in 1891.

There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call. Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air.

─ From an article by Master Sgt. Jari A. Villanueva, USAF

For additional information on the history of Taps, see https://tapsbugler.com/an-excerpt-from-twenty-four-notes-that-tap-deep-emotions-the-story-of-americas-most-famous-bugle-call/.

The History of the Gun Salute

A 21-gun salute is the highest customary gun salute that is performed by the firing of cannons or artillery as a military honor. The custom stems from naval tradition, in which a warship would fire its cannons harmlessly out to sea until all ammunition was spent to show that it was disarmed, signifying the lack of hostile intent.

As naval customs evolved, 21 guns came to be reserved for United States presidents and ex-presidents, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation and members of a reigning royal family. The number of guns decrease with the rank of the recipient of the honor.

The act of demonstrating peaceful intentions by placing weapons in a position that renders them ineffective may be traced to early warriors. This custom became universal and is carried out depending on the weapon used. For example, a North African tribe trailed the points of its spears on the ground to indicate that its members did not mean to be hostile.

In effect, the person who performed the salute placed himself in the power of the person he was saluting. Eventually, this practice became honorary and ceremonial as well as practical. Swords were pointed downward, headdresses were removed and sails lowered.

Varying customs among the maritime powers led to confusion in saluting and the return of salutes. Britain, in her role as the most powerful nation on the seas in the 18th and 19th centuries, compelled weaker nations to salute first. And for a time, monarchies received more guns than republics.

Eventually, by agreement, the International Salute was established at 21 guns. The United States did not agree on this procedure until August 1875.

The gun-salute system of the United States has changed considerably over the years. In 1810, the National Salute was defined by the War Department as equal to the number of states in the Union ─ 17 at the time.

This salute was fired by all U.S. military installations on Independence Day. The president also received a salute equal to the number of states whenever he visited a military installation.

In 1841, the Presidential Salute was formally established at 21 guns. In 1890, regulations designated the National Salute as 21 guns and redesignated the traditional Independence Day salute, the Salute to the Union, equal to the number of states.

Fifty guns are also fired on all military installations equipped to do so at the close of the day of the funeral for a president, ex-president or president-elect.

The Air Force does not have saluting cannons. It provides “honors cordons” in place of a 21-gun salute. The number of persons in the honor cordon from 21 to nine indicates the type of honors being accorded.

People commonly mistake the three rifle volleys, an element of military funeral honors, as a 21-gun salute.

The firing of three rifle volleys, or rounds, over the graves of deceased armed forces members and political leaders, can be traced to the European dynastic wars, when fighting was halted to remove the dead and wounded.

Once an area was cleared of casualties, three volleys were sent into the air as a signal that the dead were cleared and properly cared for and that fighting could resume. At a military funeral today, a rifle team typically consisting of seven service members firing three volleys from rifles may be provided.

It is not known why the number 21 was chosen for national salutes.

In ancient cultures, numerology ─ the study of numbers ─ developed symbolism behind most numbers. These cultures believed the number seven to be sacred and, therefore, it is believed, multiples of seven would be looked upon favorably (hence, the 21-gun salute).

Other gun salutes range from five to 21 guns by increments of two and are prescribed in accordance with the occasion and level of importance of those honored.

It is generally believed that gun salutes are set off in odd numbers because, according to an old naval superstition, even numbers are unlucky.

For additional information on the history of the gun salute, visit the U.S. Army Center of Military History.